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Total abortion ban in Dominican Republic kills - rights group

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 23 Jul 2013 05:15 GMT
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In a file photo from 2007, residents hold dolls symbolising babies and foetuses during a protest against abortion on the streets of Santo Domingo. REUTERS/ Eduardo Munoz
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(Corrects reference to Congress of Dominican Republic in paragraph 10.)

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women’s rights campaigners have filed a lawsuit against a hospital and doctors in the Dominican Republic for the death of a teenager, who they say was denied life-saving treatment for acute leukemia while she was pregnant.

The 16-year-old girl, known as Esperancita, died nearly a year ago in a case that sparked an outcry in the Caribbean nation, where abortion is banned under all circumstances, even when the mother’s health or life is in danger.

Earlier this month, rights group Women's Link Worldwide, which is based in Spain and Colombia, and the Women and Health Collective in the Dominican Republic filed a lawsuit on behalf of the deceased girl’s mother, Rosa Hernandez, who is seeking justice and compensation for her daughter’s death.

Lawyers say Esperancita was not allowed to undergo chemotherapy she needed to treat the cancer because it would harm and possibly kill the foetus, which would be regarded as a crime under the country’s abortion law.

“We believe the doctors treating Esperancita didn’t give her opportune and adequate treatment because she was pregnant. The doctors were negligent. They decided to put the life of the foetus above Esperancita’s life, which put her life at risk and ultimately had fatal consequences,” said Katherine Romero, a senior lawyer with Women’s Link Worldwide in Bogota.

“The case of Esperancita shows the high cost that total abortion bans have in the Dominican Republic and other countries in the region,” Romero told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.

If the trial in the Dominican Republic goes ahead, it could take up to two years, she said.

SAVING WOMEN’S LIVES

Hernandez, Esperancita’s mother, hopes that by seeking justice she can prevent more deaths among women and girls who need an abortion or treatment to save their lives while pregnant.

“No one can bring my daughter back. But I cannot allow these things to happen without bringing to light that what was done was wrong. Until this is recognised and there is justice, there is no way to prevent another mother from living the experience I endured and trying to get someone to save my daughter,” Hernandez told reporters in the capital of the Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo, last week.

The Dominican Republic’s influential Catholic Church along with a powerful conservative lobby in the country's Congress, are factors behind the country’s stringent abortion laws, local rights group say.

In countries where abortion is totally banned, the rates of maternal mortality rise because doctors are unable or too afraid to provide life-saving treatment when it can affect a pregnancy, even when it’s the only way to save a mother’s life, according to rights group Amnesty International. Outright abortion bans also mean women are more likely to undergo dangerous backstreet abortions, which put their lives at risk.

The Dominican Republic is one of seven countries in Latin America - along with Nicaragua, Chile, Honduras, Haiti, Suriname and El Salvador - where abortion is completely banned, with no explicit exception written in law made to save the life of a woman.

Many other women and girls like Esperancita have died and others have had their lives put at risk as a result of the region’s stringent abortion laws, says Women's Link Workwide.

In May, the case of Beatriz, an ill woman from El Salvador carrying a malformed foetus, caused global outcry when the country’s court upheld the outright ban on abortion even though her life was at risk and the foetus was unlikely to survive. She later underwent a Caesarian section, and survived the procedure, though her baby died.

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